In late July and August, something remarkable happens in the air above Lake Murray, South Carolina. Around sunset, hundreds of thousands of purple martins come streaming towards the center of the lake from every direction, swirling together in a massive flock that darkens the sky. After an hour of wheeling and singing they settle down on a small island.
For the past 25 years, Lake Murray has boasted the largest purple martin roost in the United States. The birds gather there in the hundreds of thousands before beginning their epic migration to South America. Every year hundreds of boats full of purple martin admirers crowd the waters around the island. Every year 500,000 birds put on a breathtaking aerial performance.
But not this year.
This year, the boats went out as usual. But the birds didn’t show up.
And so Skunk Bear (NPR’s science tumblr) has gone mobile in search of the missing martins. We – that’s photojournalist Maggie Starbard and science reporter Adam Cole – have vowed not to return to HQ until we’ve located the errant flock … or until Tuesday morning. Whichever comes first.
We’re starting our search where the birds were last seen: in American backyards. Purple martins on the east coast rely entirely on human-built dwellings to breed, and thousands of humans have taken it upon themselves to provide these nesting colonies. We’re hoping this slightly crazy fellowship of purple martin “landlords” (that’s what they call themselves) can point us in the right direction.
Maybe we’ll find out where the birds went. Maybe we’ll find out why they are so dependent on humans. And maybe we’ll find out why all these people are so invested in their survival. Stay tuned.